By Sunni Dawson
Notes from a solo world traveller
People who meet me describe me as a friendly, positive person with a larger than life personality… and I guess most days I am. This day was a little different…
Outside noises woke me at 12.30am and 1.40am. I kept checking my phone, worried I didn’t set my alarm, or that it wouldn’t go off. I went to bed at midnight.
Crickets chirped on my iPhone waking me at 4am. I blearily headed to the bathroom, splashing myself in an attempt to make something come alive. Anything.
I dressed for a 16 hour day of travel: a roomy comfortable t-shirt and Thai pants (both cool and ever so flexible).
I was downstairs outside my hostel at 4.45am. The colourful 19th century Chinese colonial houses were lit by soft fluro lights, providing me some light between the pillars. I looked to both ends of the street. Not another animal in sight.
A few motorbikes drove past. I stood at the side of the pavement so that the minivan could see me. I made several calls the day before confirming my early pickup.
5.15am. I make a Skype call. ‘Hi, I am waiting for a pick up, it was suppose to be here at 4am. Just making sure the driver knows where to find me?’
‘Yes, I have your pick-up. The driver will be there soon.’
Another motorcycle went past. It turned around and drove back down to the end of the street. It turned around again and drove back down to the other end of the street. Again the motorcycle passed. It turned around for the fourth time.
On the fifth time it slowed down almost pulling to a stop about 2 metres away from me. My stomach started knotting. Feelings of both anger and unease washed over me.
The solidly built man stared at me.
‘Just fuck off.’
He bike reared into action. He turned around pulling up the bike so that he was just a metre from me.
‘What did you say to me? Your stupid mouth. Shut up your stupid mouth.’
I stood there looking at him. I involuntarily took a step backwards. I looked around me. There weren’t any escape routes. I couldn’t get back into the hostel, I had locked myself out as requested. I could run either right or left with my heavy backpack.
‘Your stupid mouth, you think you’re that beautiful. Have you looked at yourself in the mirror lately? Your stupid mouth.’
‘You wanna fuck? Your stupid mouth needs this cock.’ He grabs himself. ‘You stupid woman. You stupid whore.’
He continued to hurl such pleasantries at me for another few minutes. I knew it was pointless to respond. Pointless to run.
I stood motionless. Please make him go!
In a pause I repeated. ‘Just fuck off.’
He stared at me again. I stared back.
He started up his bike. And drove slowly down the street.
I started to become more anxious. He could come back. With friends. Is the minivan ever going to get here?
I looked at my phone. 5.25pm.
‘Hello, I am still waiting for my pick up.’
‘What’s the address again?’
I sigh and explain the roads the hostel runs off. ‘Ok, ok, driver will be there.’
Another bike drives past. The driver looks at me and slows down pulling to a stop on the other side of the narrow road.
He waves with a big smile, ‘Hello baby!’
‘Ok, ok.’ He drives off.
I breathe out. His energy was different than the first. Friendlier, but my emotions were marching up and down my blood stream on high alert. I hope the first doesn’t come back. Or bring his friends. Shit, I hope the minivan comes soon.
I begin to move back behind a pillar, trying to make myself less obvious to the random bike driving past.
‘Hello. I am still waiting for the driver.’
‘Can you get a taxi?’
‘There are no taxis in sight. I would come to you, but the streets are dark and there’s no-one around.’
‘He’ll be there. Where is it again?’
I patiently explain the address again.
‘Will I need to call back? Are you sure he’s coming? I’m getting harassed on the street. I really need to know he’s coming.’
‘He’ll be there. No need to call back.’
I started to get the overwhelming need to go to the toilet.
Desperately. The kind of desperation a person gets after eating something from a grimy food stall in Asia. I needlessly looked around the street again. I couldn’t miss the minivan. I couldn’t get back into my hostel.
Could I go on the street? What if a motorbike came past and caught me? How much worse would that be? And what about the poor pedestrians later in the morning?
I banged on the door of the hostel in the vain hope someone might hear me and get up. Nothing.
I tried deep breathing. I tried to focus on something else.
A female voice answers.
‘Hi, I had a 4am pick up. I’m at … Is the driver coming?’
‘Where are you?’
I explain the address again and the streets it borders adding ‘I’m not very far from your office.’
‘Ok, I’ll let the driver know.’
‘I’ve already called three times this morning and twice yesterday. I need to get this minivan, I have to get to Thailand this morning.’
‘Ok, I’ll get the driver to pick you up.’
Same female voice. ‘The driver can’t find you, he’s gone to Thailand. You’ll have to wait for another bus midday today.’
‘I can’t wait. I have to get to Thailand this morning, my travel is coordinated so I can get the last ferry.’
‘There is nothing I can do.’
‘What? This is my fifth call this morning, I called yesterday. I have been harassed my men on the street. I am desperately in need of a toilet, and I can’t get back into my hostel.’
Two young loud men walk past me on the street, ‘Hey girl? What do you want to do?’ Waving their arms in an unsavoury manner at me.
‘Look, I’m getting harassed again. This is too much. Its unsafe. I need to get to Thailand.’
‘The driver can’t find you. He’s Thai, he’s not from here.’
‘That’s his job! That’s not good enough. You need to show him. I have been calling all morning. I have been waiting alone in the dark and been harassed on the street. Do you know what that’s like? I have to get the last ferry…’
She’s hung up on me!
I bang on the door to the hostel again. I’m beyond emotional. The closest I can get to describing myself at that moment is a fish on dry land trying shit and breathe at the same time.
I start pacing. The dawn was on its way and I saw more movement of cars down one end of the street.
After about 5 minutes, I reluctantly make myself call back.
‘Hi, its me.’
‘I have asked the driver to turn around. He’s coming back. Where can you go that he find you?’
‘Umm I know this hotel a few streets away, do you know..’
‘Look I can walk into your office in about 15 minutes. Its lighter now and there’s more people, so I think it’ll be ok.’
‘Do you know where we are? Maybe you could meet him at a bank.’
‘No, I know where you are. I’ve been there before. At least we’ll both know where it is.’ Side note, I had been there once, at 9pm at night, two nights before after a 16 hour travel day, but I was sure I would find it again.
‘Have you got a number so I can call you?’
‘No, I don’t I’m calling through wifi.’
‘Take my number then.’
I walk briskly down the end of the street. I notice a restaurant off the main road. I ask the first person I see for a toilet. Relief is the wrong word. More like that fish getting another chance of life-water kinda feeling.
I’m almost there. I walk around the huge building trying to recognise all the entrances and exits. Eventually I found the right looking one.
I walk up to a woman looking up and down the under-building street.
‘Its you? Quickly, quickly.’
And with that, I’m scramble into the minivan.
I wish I could say that was the end of the delirium that continued to unfold throughout the day. I was over and above exhaustion. Missing transport connections and being put on others. I witnessed corruption (many times). I lent a stranger a lot of money, not knowing if I’d see it again. I did. I had to fight again to be fairly treated. I lost.
I made the last ferry by 2 minutes.
I was crying by the time I made back to my bungalow. I cried myself to sleep. I was safe, but alone and feeble.
The only solution the next day was to eat pancakes and chocolate. And organise Skype chats to debrief with friends. It took more than a few days to get back to feeling somewhat normal. I felt numb and overwhelmed. I cried some more.
Of course there were a range of factors in this event that played its part. Not the least of which was that I was also menstruating.
This is one of the worst kinds of days you experience as a solo female traveller. No-one to share the burden. No-one to help negotiate. No-one to stick up for you. No shoulder to cry on. No-one to debrief to. No one to be kind to you.
And I survived. But it took its emotional toll. It ran me dry. More than depleting. So I took care of myself in the following days reading, eating and talking to close friends (thank you!). I am fortunate enough to have been able to do this. Some others aren’t.
I wanted to share this day because of the unique experiences of being a woman travelling by herself. I know much of what I experienced as a woman I would not have experienced if I was a man (sexual harassment, being treated differently on pick up, not having to fight to be taken seriously, feeling more personally comfortable to walk in dark streets, and the list goes on. I won’t list all the research on all this, needless to say, its universal).
But this day (and those I’ve had before), does not make me want to stop travelling. These days are extreme. And the good days, the magnificent sights, learnings, sharings, wonder and pure joy strongly outweigh these types of days for me.
But sometimes, just sometimes, I wish for a travelling companion.